By Marcie Kaplan
Elder Travel Bronze Winner in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards
The Himalayas helped her find intimacy, faith, and reassurance.
I had my first tingly feeling when we were hiking up through woods from a 10,000-foot Himalayan pass to a monastery, and we passed soldiers in camouflage. I expected surprises in Bhutan, a Buddhist country about happiness more than money, and had been surprised by the trail’s red limbs with bulbous, mossy growths that seemed to reach out at me. But I hadn’t expected soldiers in camouflage. My guide, Pema, greeted them, “Kuzuzangbo la,” and continued on, signaling me not to ask questions, I thought, so I nodded politely to the soldiers and followed Pema.
We emerged into what was a clearing with about 75 towering poles. Thin strips of prayer flags ran the poles’ length, waving, fluttering and rippling in the wind, making a soothing, hissing sound. We crested the hill they were on to a 360-degree Himalayan panorama, shrouded, revealed and laced by moving clouds. Before us was a goemba, a monastery with a temple of whitewashed mud and ornately carved wood—swarming with soldiers. Pema chatted with a robed monk and told me the Elder Queen Mother was there. Another tingly feeling—not apprehension but thrill this time—royalty! We removed our hiking boots, I leaned my trekking poles against the temple wall, and we went in.
Four days earlier, my plane had threaded through the Himalayan peaks to land in Bhutan. I’d exited the airport into a large semicircle of smiling Bhutanese holding companies’ signs and looking at me expectantly. The guides, required for every visitor. Traditionally dressed, the men in knee socks and ghos—knee-length, belted robes—and women in kiras—floor-length, wrap-around dresses. I spotted a 30-ish man holding a sign with my tour company’s name and felt relief to be claimed.
Here I was, a 69-year-old woman arriving for two weeks—the first, sightseeing, the second, a trek. Cortisone shots in arthritic joints, NSAIDs, altitude sickness medicine—check, check, check. To my surprise, I’d been the only person to sign up for my tour, so it was just Pema, a driver and me the first week, and on the trek, Pema and me hiking, plus cook, cook’s assistant, and horseman in our camp at night. I’d worried about talking with a stranger all day every day, but so far Pema and I’d gotten along. We’d even developed an in-joke, phrases following thank you—“You’re welcome,” “mention not,” “my pleasure,” etc.—which he said would earn us merit towards our next incarnations. I was familiar with Buddhist beliefs from my meditation practice at home in Boston, and also I welcomed this possible increase in good luck. The first seven decades of my life had gone OK except in the love department. Relationships had ended, and then I’d settled into a fun, loving, meaningful, safe life of women friends, with great conversations and activities, and no threat of past hurts recurring. At 49, I’d adopted my 11-week-old daughter. A single mom, I’d not had time or space for dating. Now my daughter was in college, and I was “free” again. I’d tested the waters a few months earlier and gone out with an architect twice. We were as different as Mormons and Jews, which actually was the situation, him Mormon, me Jew. He lived an inactive life on a shoestring, while I flew to far sides of the world to hike. Surprisingly, though, we could talk and laugh about everything. A friend and I had done the breast stroke around Walden Pond for an hour discussing what I should do about him. Around in circles we swam, me confused as ever. He’d canceled our third date and disappeared. Fine—I hadn’t figured out what to do, anyway. Then just before I flew to Bhutan, he’d surfaced and asked to see me before I left. I said I’d see him after I got back.
One thing I’d noticed in my first few days in Bhutan was how intimate the Bhutanese were. I sat in the front seat of the SUV with our driver, and Pema sat in back and leaned forward to tell me about Bhutan, his face near my shoulder. He and our driver and hotel and restaurant staffs all seemed attentive to my comfort. Did I want a drink? Did the space heater in my room work well? If I was wearing hiking pants with small pockets, Pema held out his hand, took my phone and tucked it into the folds of his gho, where the material was gathered and tucked into two pouches roomy as knapsacks. And this care wasn’t just reserved for tourists. On a hike past a construction site, the construction manager in hard hat knelt behind Pema to refold Pema’s gho, line up the material and re-tie the belt, while Pema stood staring out at the valley below us.
Built into the first week’s sightseeing and day hikes were conditioning for the trek and adjusting to altitude. We were about halfway from Boston’s sea level to the trek’s highest point, a 16,000-foot pass. We visited villages, nunneries, dzongs—secular and religious fortresses—all with cascades of Himalayan views. Pema talked about the Elder Queen Mother and her foundation’s wise, compassionate work: eco-stoves, women’s economic empowerment, climate resilient water harvesting, green technology, nutrition initiatives, hydro-electrification, early childhood care.
The Elder Queen Mother was the first wife of Bhutan’s 4th,king—a polygamous king, his 2nd, 3d and 4th wives, her younger sisters. He’d abdicated in 2006 in favor of his eldest son, the 5th and current king, to help Bhutan shift from monarchy to democratic, constitutional monarchy, “because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit.” His abdication illustrated another Bhutan quality I’d noticed: clear-seeing through conditioned views. Bhutan now had an elected Parliament, and a prime minister headed the government. Interviews with each citizen about what does and doesn’t work informed public policy and the Queen’s foundation projects. In 2011, when he wed, the 5th king announced he’d have only one wife.
Now, at the monatery, Pema and I stepped into the long, crowded temple. Twenty monks in saffron robes stood against the opposite wall, chanting. People sat at the far end of the room, and two people, a couple in Western hiking clothes, sat near me on cushions. At my end of the room was a gold-skinned Guru Rinpoche statue, almost the height of the room, festooned with colorful fabrics, glittery gold ornaments, dangling earrings, and lotus flowers and leaves. I’d already learned from Pema that Guru Rinpoche was “the second Buddha,” an 8th-century master who’d brought Buddhism from India to Bhutan. Now, in the temple, soldiers in camouflage and men in ghos milled about in Guru Rinpoche’s shadows.
I sank onto a cushion, listened to chanting and watched. A smiling man in a gho bowed and extended a tray to me with cookies and hot tea. How did he know before I knew what I wanted? Warm during our uphill hike, I was cold sitting in the temple. I ate a cookie and sipped tea and felt restored. Then gazed about and realized from billboard-size pictures I’d seen that one of the people I’d noticed at the far end of the room was the Elder Queen Mother. I zoomed in, studied her. She was dressed in a kira and kneeling, her legs tucked under her, on a raised platform. On her left knelt a younger woman. On the Queen’s right was a throne, and, sitting in it, a robed child who looked to be around three years old.
All of them completely still. The three-year-old staring, the Queen and the younger woman, dignified, relaxed, hands in prayer at their chests, gazing intently down the room at Guru Rinpoche. The child’s stare looked engaged, not bored or restless. How long could the three of them not move? I waited for the child to turn rambunctious and the women to shift positions. Didn’t happen. I wondered if I could sit that still when I meditated.
The monks stopped chanting and filed out. I wondered, where were they were going? Did they like their lives? The Queen turned her head and looked in the direction of us three Westerners and smiled, surprising me. Was she looking at us? She said, “Please come forward and be blessed by my grandson.” My God, not only was she looking at us, she was talking to us. The other two Westerners started to stand. I clambered to standing, my leg muscles having stiffened, and took faltering steps off my cushion in my socks. We three crossed the empty center of the room and, one by one, approached the throne and bowed our heads. The toddler touched the tops of our heads with a scepter. Well I actually didn’t know what he touched us with—I couldn’t see while I bowed and, busy trying to walk gracefully, hadn’t paid attention to the other two. Then the three of us were standing in the middle of the room, and I didn’t know what to do next—walk out, or get permission to walk out, or what? I enjoyed the clueless feeling and wanted to bask in unpredictability—what a pleasure in not knowing what I was doing next! The Queen smiled at us and asked, “Can you stay for a few minutes so we might speak together?”
My age seemed to plummet from 69 to 5, I felt so star-struck, like we three Westerners were the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man before the Great and Powerful Oz.
We made up a tiny half-circle, our two guides at our outer edge. The Queen smiled and asked where we were from. The couple said Italy, I answered, and the Queen gestured towards the young woman next to her and said her daughter, who now smiled at me, had gone to high school in Boston and did I know the school? The daughter looked attentively at me. What weird luck. I said my daughter had gone to that school. The Queen and Princess exclaimed and laughed. I felt my smile looked lunatic. The Queen said her daughter went to Stanford and Harvard Law School and was known as the Princess Lawyer. She asked the couple and me about our time in Bhutan. I said I’d been the only one to sign up for my tour, so it was just my guide and me. She said, “It’s auspicious.” Auspicious, hmm. I’d felt worried, she had faith.
I remembered a slogan on my tour company’s website—“You don’t take a trip. A trip takes you.” I considered substituting her faith for my doubt.
She asked our guides if they’d told us the monastery’s history. Pema said he’d been planning to once we were inside—his usual timing—and the Queen said she’d tell us, herself, if we’d like. Yes, we’d like. She seemed to want to. I felt drawn to her now, not to her royalty but to her warmth.
She said that in 2003, her husband, then king, led the Bhutan Army to the southern border to fight Indian rebels sheltering there. They wanted independence for India’s northeastern states, to their south. India had pressed Bhutan to eject them, and Bhutan had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with them for years, and now its military, in its first operation, would remove them. The Queen’s son, a 19-year-old Oxford student, left England to join his father in leading the troops. The Queen was frantic with worry, desperate for her husband and son to return home safe, and raced here to the monastery, in less than half the time she usually took, to appeal to Guru Rimpoche. Since she talked about her feelings—desperate and frantic—I felt connected with her as she talked. She found the monastery in ruins, only the Guru Rimpoche statue in reasonable shape. Distraught, she knelt before him and offered him a deal: she’d restore the monastery if he’d safeguard her husband and son. “Implicit was I wouldn’t restore the monastery if he didn’t,” she said, laughing. I felt connected with her because of her humor. Her husband and son returned home safe. She launched the monastery project. Laborers carried heavy stones and lumber up the trail through the forest of “ancient trees, primitive trees”—she and I saw those woods the same way. The laborers, whose praises she sang, took four years to finish.
She glanced towards the throne, which I now saw was empty, the child gone, and said her grandson was the reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche. She laughed, maybe guessing how this information might fall on skeptical, Western ears, and said that, a year earlier, when he was two and a half, he’d told his parents he was Guru Rimpoche’s reincarnation. They therefore had brought him to the Guru’s ruined monastery in India, to test his claim. When they arrived, a tour was in progress. The guide pointed to stones he said had been the library, and the toddler said, “No, that was the granary.” He was correct, the guide resigned, and the toddler led the rest of the tour of the Guru Rimpoche monastery. The Queen nodded to the empty throne and said, “The original him” and laughed. She said her grandson was an “old soul” and didn’t laugh—maybe she knew that concept was embraced in the West. She invited us to file past the Guru Rinpoche statue on our way out to make a wish. I was delighted for another possible shot at good luck. Before I turned from where I stood, about 20 feet away from the Lawyer Princess, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her when she’d graduated from high school. She laughed and said, “A long time ago! 1999.” The Queen asked, “When did your daughter graduate?” I said, “2016.” There was back and forth women talk that felt like home. The Princess said, “Please give your daughter my warmest regards,” and the Queen said, “Please give her my warmest regards, also.” I’d be on it that night on WhatsApp—this was one time conveying regards wouldn’t fall through the cracks.
We three Westerners filed past Guru Rimpoche, and I asked him for a boyfriend.
Pema and I retrieved boots and poles, returned to the trail to proceed to another monastery, and hiked silently, both of us moved, no inside jokes.
Our trek began three days later. My highest hiking ever was to 14,000 feet, and I’d had altitude sickness at 12,000 feet in two different parts of the world. Planning my Bhutan trip, I’d hoped my ascent had been too fast those two times, and the slower acclimatization of the Bhutan trek would make a difference. Now, as Pema and I hiked and gained altitude, my stomach clenched, and I felt nauseous and light-headed. I persevered. We talked about his cycling competitions on routes over passes, and my daughter. He didn’t ask if I was married, I didn’t say. I thought asking might seem rude to him. It didn’t seem rude to me—I asked about his love life, and he talked about his favorite girlfriend.
We ascended three days, the knot in my stomach tightening, low-level light-headedness and nausea constant, appetite disappearing. For acclimatization, we remained in the same campground the third and fourth nights before the 16,000-foot pass. After that third night, I roused myself before dawn and stood surrounded by dark peaks that framed the up-close, brilliant, gold-and-orange sunrise on the East face of Jomolhari. An unclimbed 24,000-foot mountain. In Bhutan, it’s illegal to climb peaks higher than 20,000 feet, because they belong to the gods. The unclimbed Jomolhari looked sacred to me, like a temple.
The night before the ascent to the pass, I lay in my sleeping bag in my tent, in long underwear, fleece jacket, down jacket, wool hat, mittens, my sleeping bag lined with thermal liner, the bag’s hood cinched over my forehead, exposing only my mouth and nose to air so I could breathe. I was tired of feeling sick, scared of feeling sicker, and freezing, and fantasized about reversing direction in the morning and going down. To a heated hotel, relaxed stomach, hot shower and restaurant buffet. I got up the next morning early again to see sunrise on Jomolhari again and, walking to the toilet tent in the dark, passing wandering yaks, noticed, to my surprise, I was breathing deeply. I hadn’t realized I hadn’t been breathing deeply, but apparently I hadn’t been and now I was. Again. Should I abandon my plan to turn around? I wondered. At breakfast, I forced myself to sit in the camping chair at the tiny camping table in the sun, yaks walking by, and eat muesli and eggs. Pema came over and said I needed to decide whether I wanted to press on or turn around, by 2:00 p.m., so he could call the crew and let them know where to set up camp for the night.
I’d postpone the decision. We started trekking, headed for the pass. By late morning, I was still hiking, plowing on, and up, past two long, narrow lakes, one emerald, one deep blue, in a brown valley with snow-covered mountains, Jomolhari and pointy, 22,000-foot Jichu Drake, in the background. Deschi, the cook’s assistant, arrived with lunch in his backpack, and Pema and he lay a cloth down on the grass to picnic. The thought of eating did not appeal. I asked if I could skip lunch and hike on, and they’d catch up, and Pema said yes, since there was only one trail, there was no chance of my getting lost. I continued on. Alone on the trail for the first time in Bhutan, I suddenly got on a roll and wanted to see how fast I could go. I practically ran. Up. After a while, the trail turned, and I saw the valley way below me, Pema and Deschi, tiny figures standing and packing lunch items in a backpack. Amazing how clear my view of them was. I turned and raced on. The pass came into view ahead, above me, a dip between two peaks, tiny prayer flags strung across. I was thrilled. I continued. An hour later, I heard Pema and Deschi behind me. Pema said, “We couldn’t catch up with you.” I was so proud—they couldn’t catch up with me! I didn’t tell him I was proud, since I felt guilty I’d maybe caused him stress. Now, the three of us hiking together, I relaxed. I saw I’d been nervous—I hadn’t realized I’d felt nervous—that I’d get lost in the Himalayas with scant chance of survival. Now I hiked, no longer nervous. Above us, the small, square prayer flags strung across the pass, whipping in the wind, became larger. I hiked looking up at them. I neared them, and my vision blurred from tears, not from the wind in my eyes but from relief and triumph.
At the pass, Pema took pictures of me with my phone, including ridiculous ones, like of me curtsying in hiking boots. I felt free to be ridiculous or whatever I wanted to be, for several minutes. I’d earned it.
What I didn’t know was that ascending was the easy part. Now that we were descending, the trail of slippery, dry dirt and rock slanted down, bordered by steep cliffs. I was terrified I’d fall. Horse teams came up from behind to pass. Where on this narrow path could I step aside? And there were big steps from rock down to rock—painful for knees, and scary, that knees would cave and I’d plummet. Pema at times walked slowly next to the trail, on the steeply slanted slope, holding my hand, or taking my hand to help me ease down a big drop from rock to rock. A trekking group streamed past, me inched up the inclined side of the trail to make way for them. I could never hike at their pace. I remembered the Queen saying having my own guide was auspicious. Was she right or what? Turned out I’d needed help, and I had it.
The trek’s last day, we descended more than 5,000 feet. I limited the frequency of my glances below to where we were headed. Way below. Flat ground, a river winding through it, teensy, tiny SUVs. Which stayed teensy, tiny no matter how long I didn’t let myself look, how infrequently I looked. As teensy, tiny as they’d looked an hour earlier. I despaired. I persevered. I had no choice. I was a walking machine.
It took me six hours to descend. It took most people four, and the trekking group that had passed me, two.
I didn’t care. I’d completed the trek. I was thrilled. I’d scored a personal best in altitude.
With one more day for me in Bhutan, Pema and I went shopping on a street of stores in the small airport town. I found a pair of silver earrings, wide as miniature chandeliers, with tiny bells dangling. I put them on and looked in a mirror propped on a shelf stacked with neatly folded yak wool shawls. Pema leaned in, our faces side by side in the mirror, his reflected eyes looking at my reflected eyes, his reflected mouth moving. “Those earrings will bring you a husband,” he said. So he knew without asking.
Eight months later, in Boston, sitting at my dining room table, wearing the earrings, I’m writing about the trip that took me. The architect is sitting across from me, drawing a landscaped building on a big piece of paper. I like working together, him drawing, me writing. Love has bloomed. Maybe my trip helped in a way that my usual problem-solver, talking with women friends, couldn’t. Who knows? The architect had taken a couple months’ break to think things through, and I’d visited Bhutan—to find intimacy, faith, reassurance I could get help when I’m scared.
Marcie Kaplan is a writer, forensic psychologist and mom. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Magazine and other periodicals. She lives in the Boston area and considers Walden Pond, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Acadia National Park as homes. She is returning to Bhutan when she finishes the memoir she’s writing, since now it also feels like home.